by D'Ann Mateer
When the subject of Genre week came up in discussion, it didn’t immediately stir anything within me. After all, I am the queen of no genre in that I can usually find a book I like in almost any genre! But then I thought of my friend Carla Stewart.
Carla’s debut novel, Chasing Lilacs, released a couple of weeks ago. It is one of those novels that falls in the general fiction category because there isn’t quite a genre for it. Not historical. Not contemporary. Chasing Lilacs takes place in 1958, a time that evokes a sense of nostalgia for so many people.
D’Ann: So, Carla, explain to us this unique place of nostalgia in a novel.
Carla: Nostalgic fiction takes a reader on a journey where the memory is engaged through sensory detail and provides a “getaway” from today’s hectic pace. Webster’s defines nostalgia as: 1) the state of being homesick; 2) a wistful or sentimental yearning for a return to the past.
Just as a child says, “Mommy, tell me the story of when I was a baby,” adults also enjoy an occasional trip back to the age of innocence and the simplicity of childhood. Whether we have wonderful memories or tragic ones, it was still a time when we felt deeper and more passionately about everything. It is the time when we were literally taking the first steps to becoming who we are today.
A writer I met recently said it like this. “Life was good, but never easy.” Yes, there were challenges. Adolescence was just as traumatic then as it is today. Who doesn’t remember the acne? Fitting in with the “in” crowd? Your first driving lesson? Or your first car? What it felt like to get a first kiss? I suspect there’s a bit in all of us that is homesick for the “good old days.”
Baby boomers are my primary target audience, and with more than 45 million “boomer” households in the US, that’s a sizable audience. It has turned out, though, that from what my early readers say, a lot of younger people are reading Chasing Lilacs and like finding out about a different era. I liken it to the way I enjoy learning about the flapper days of the 1920s—it was an interesting time and as long as the story is entertaining, maybe the audience is broader than we imagine.
D’Ann: So did you set out to write a book that might be characterized as “nostalgia” fiction?
Carla: I’m not sure the term nostalgic fiction exists as a stand-alone genre since the stories can be mysteries, romances, or coming-of-age. I’m often drawn to non-genre stories, and nostalgic fiction fits snugly into that. My initial goal as a writer was to write stories like those I loved to read—To Kill a Mockingbird, Peace Like a River, Mrs. Mike, The Shell Seekers, The Secret Life of Bees. It’s more about the story than the genre, but there is something delightful about stepping back into another era and reliving it in the pages of a book.
The concept of nostalgia, though, is sort of hard to pitch to an agent or editor, so it’s also a GREAT idea if you can define your nostalgic story as one with romantic elements or as a coming-of-age tale or one with issues that would appeal to readers of women’s fiction. Every story, even non-genre or nostalgic ones, needs an attention-grabbing hook and a focus.
D’Ann: So tell us about Chasing Lilacs.
Carla: It’s the coming of age story of a young girl’s search for her mother’s love. Elvis is on the radio. Summer is in the air. Life in the small Texas community of Graham Camp should be simple and carefree. But not for Sammie Tucker. Sammie has plenty of questions about her mother’s “nerve” problems. About shock treatments. About whether her mother loves her.
As her life careens out of control, Sammie has to choose who to trust with her deepest fears: Her best friend who has an opinion about everything, the mysterious boy from California whose own troubles plague him, or her round-faced neighbor with gentle advice and strong shoulders to cry on. Then there’s the elderly widower who seems nice but has his own dark past.
Trusting is one thing, but accepting the truth may be the hardest thing Sammie has ever done.
D’Ann: I can testify that it is a wonderful read—and I learned a lot about life in a time I didn’t experience myself but didn’t learn in history class, either! Will your next book continue in this same style?
Carla: Definitely. My next novel, Broken Wings, has a strong nostalgic thread woven into a contemporary story. What I liked about doing that was to show the parallel between the two eras and have the stories mirror each other with the events that were going on in the characters’ lives. It doesn’t have the same “good old days” feel that Chasing Lilacs does, but there’s a richness to the jazz age that I loved writing about.
D’Ann: Thanks, Carla, for sharing a bit about books that don’t always fall into a category and, thus, might get overlooked!
Carla: I’ve enjoyed being here and am always excited when I can connect with readers. You can find me here:
Chasing Lilacs is currently available at your favorite online bookseller or on the shelves of many bookstores!
So to those of you visiting with us today: what book have you enjoyed that doesn’t really fit a genre by definition? Do you usually stick to specific genres or venture into books that don’t have a “label”?